Sealers on the Magdalen Islands usually haul in 2,000 grey seals in the short winter hunting season. This year, they did not bring back a single seal, after two failed expeditions out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Crews that set out in January to hunt for prized grey seals off the coast of Nova Scotia could not get past the thick ice.

Réjean Vigneau, president of the Intra-Quebec Sealers Association, said the team of around a dozen hunters won't make another attempt before the end of the season, which he calls "catastrophic."

"It's also catastrophic for the Magdalen Islands' marine ecosystem," he said. "All the seals are confined in the waters of the estuaries."

Without a single catch for 2018, Vigneau, who also co-owns a butcher shop where the seal meat is processed, is worried he will not be able to supply his customers.

Réjean Vigneau

Réjean Vigneau, president of the Intra-Quebec Sealers Association, says the 2018 grey seal hunting season has been one of the worst he can remember. (Elisa Serret/Radio-Canada)

"We've never had trouble meeting demand, but for 2018, we'll have to see," he said.

The market for seal meat in Quebec restaurants has steadily increased in recent years. The butcher shop, which once sold the meat from 200 seals a year, now ships out cuts from nearly 2,000 seals annually. 

Domino effect on workers

Vigneau said he had to inform seasonal workers he wouldn't be hiring anyone for the usual four- or five-week period during which the meat is processed and shipped out.

The butcher shop may also have to let go of some of its full-time employees. 

"We'll try to find a Plan B, but they may have to ask for unemployment benefits," he said.

For the hunters, there is one option left: they can head for Newfoundland when the harp seal hunt opens in March.

Vigneau said the harp seals, also known as Groenland seals, are less coveted, because they're smaller and their meat is not as high quality as grey seal meat.

The yield from the March expeditions is also uncertain, Vigneau said.

"We don't know how many there will be in the Gulf," he said. "All we know is there will be lots of ice."

End to illegal hunting

In past years when the hunt yielded few grey seals, Vigneau admits he and his colleagues would sometimes hunt illegally on Brion Island — an uninhabited island north of the peninsula set aside as an ecological reserve.

For years, sealers have called on the Quebec government to lift the ban on seal hunting on Brion Island, claiming the reserve is now overrun with seals which are depleting fish stocks.

So far the province has refused.

While Vigneau and some of his colleagues ignored the ban in the past, a recent crackdown by the Ministry of Natural Resources has now put the island off limits.

Just last month, Vigneau and his partner, Denis Éloquin, were fined $2,625 for hunting on the reserve for commercial purposes.

Grey seals Brion Island

Grey seals crowd a beach on Brion Island in 2014. The seal population on the island, an ecological reserve, has ballooned from 400 in 1999 to an estimated 10,000 today. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Six other hunters who accompanied the pair were fined $100 for being on an ecological reserve without authorization.

The grey seal population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has grown from around 5,000 in the 1960s to 98,000 in 2014, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The harp seal population has remained between 7 and 7.8 million in the North Atlantic since 2004.

With files from Peter Tardif and Radio-Canada